How To Change Your Depressed Thoughts
Depression often makes people have thoughts that are very negative and painful. If you have depression you may have found it to be extremely difficult to keep your thoughts positive. Unfortunately, frequent depressed thoughts tend to just make depression worse. This is because our thoughts have profound impacts on our emotions. If we have a sad thought, we tend to feel sad (sad thought à sad emotion). If we have a happy thought, we tend to feel happy (happy thought à happy emotion).
Since our thoughts tend to affect our feelings it makes sense that people who have depression may try to just be more positive. This strategy doesn’t tend to be the most helpful, however, because at times depressed thoughts are realistic (true), and we can’t fool ourselves into believing something we know isn’t true. Other times, especially for people who have depression, painful thoughts might be unrealistic (or untrue). These we can often change. In fact, when people challenge their unrealistic painful thoughts and replace them with thoughts that are more realistic, often they end up feeling much better. In this post we review how to change unrealistic depressed thoughts to more realistic ones.
When you notice you are feeling depressed ask yourself “what have my thoughts been?”. We all have thoughts that pop up spontaneously throughout the day. While we often don’t really notice them, they do affect how we feel. Once you have an idea of what thoughts are causing you to feel depressed write them down and go to step two.
Ask yourself if those thoughts are completely accurate/realistic. If so, there is no need to change them. Again, you probably wouldn’t be able to fool yourself into believing something different if you tried. It can be difficult at times to determine if a thought is completely true or not. A helpful way to tell if a thought is inaccurate is to see if it falls into one of the 10 below categories of inaccurate thoughts which were taken out of Dr. David Burns’ Feeling Good Handbook. If a thought falls into one of these categories, then you know it’s unrealistic. Once you determine a thought is inaccurate, write down which categories of inaccurate thoughts your thought falls within.
“All or Nothing Thinking: You look at things in absolute, black and white categories.”
Example: Mary had her performance review at work. She received high marks in most of the measured areas but got a rating of “needs improvement” in one area. Mary thinks to herself “I can’t do anything right, I’m such a failure” and feels very sad.
A more realistic thought could be: “I did very well overall. Yes, there were a couple areas I could have done better but no one is perfect. I’ll just work to improve in those areas moving forward”. This thought would help Mary feel more competent and a sense of accomplishment.
“Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.”
Example: John got stuck in traffic while driving back to his town after visiting family. He thinks “I can’t believe this! Why does this always happen to me?” even though out of the past 5 trips to visit family this is the only traffic jam he has encountered. John’s thoughts made him feel very angry and overwhelmed.
A more realistic thought could be: “I’m annoyed I’m stuck in traffic but it’s bound to happen sometimes.” With this more realistic thought John is likely to only feel a bit of annoyance as opposed to intense anger.
“Mental Filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.”
Example: Andrew’s day was going well overall. He gets where he’s going on time, has some enjoyable conversations with friends, and decides to treat himself with take out from his favorite restaurant for dinner. When he gets to the restaurant to pick up his food, he learns they forgot to start the order he had called in and he would have to wait for his food to be cooked. Andrew thinks to himself “Of course this is how my day is going, my days never go right” and feels depressed and irritated.
A more realistic thought could be: “It’s too bad I have to wait for them to cook my food; I’m glad the rest of my day has gone well though”. With this new, more nuanced and realistic thought, John is likely to feel less depressed and irritated.
“Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities ‘don’t count’.”
Example: Amy solved a logistics problem at work that several of her colleagues were unable to fix. She thinks to herself “Oh, that wasn’t really that hard”. As a result, Amy only feels neutral about her accomplishment which in reality was rather impressive.
A more realistic thought could be: “I did a good job” or “That was smart of me”. These thoughts would help her feel a sense of accomplishment.
“Jumping to Conclusions: (A) Mind reading – you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no definite evidence for this; (B) Fortune Telling – you arbitrarily predict things will turn out badly.”
(A) Example Mind Reading: Jessica thinks to herself “they are thinking I’m such a spaz” when she dropped her purse while checking out at the grocery store. In reality the people behind her in line weren’t paying attention to what she was doing. Her thought led her to feel anxious, however.
A more realistic thought could be: “Oh well, everyone drops things from time to time, I don’t really know what other people are thinking”. This new, more realistic thought would likely lead her to feel calm.
(B) Example Fortune Telling: When studying for an important exam Kylie thinks to herself “I’ll probably fail this test” despite the reality that she almost always gets Cs and Bs on her exams and has never failed an exam since starting college two years ago. Her thought, though inaccurate, led her to feel sad and hopeless.
A more realistic thought could be: “I’ll probably get at least a C on this test”. This thought would help her feel less sad and a sense of increased confidence.
“Magnification or Minimization: You blow things way out of proportion or you shrink their importance inappropriately.”
Example: Matt losses his driver’s license and thinks to himself “Oh man, this is the absolute worst” even though he could somewhat easily get a new one. As a result of his thought, he feels extremely upset and angry. Matt’s thought that losing his license “is the absolute worst” blew things out of proportion. Since his thought was out of proportion to the event, his feelings about the situation are also much more intense than is helpful.
A more realistic thought could be: “Oh man, that is too bad, I’m going to have to make a trip to the DMV soon if I can’t find my license”. As a result of this new thought Matt will likely feel much less upset and angry.
“Emotional Reasoning: In this case emotion effects thinking. You reason from how you feel: ‘I feel like an idiot, so I really must be one.’ Or ‘I don’t feel like doing this, so I’ll put it off’.”
Example: Jane feels hopeless that her depression will ever get better so she thinks “My depression will never go away”.
A more realistic thought could be “Just because I’m feeling hopeless that my depression will ever go away doesn’t mean that it won’t.” As a result of this thought, Jane likely will feel more hopeful.
“Should Statements: You criticize yourself or other people with ‘Should’ or ‘Shouldn’ts.’ ‘Musts,’ ‘Oughts’, ‘Have tos’ are similar offenders.”
Example: Dan, who is depressed, thinks “I shouldn’t be having this hard of a time getting stuff done”. As a result, he feels even more depressed.
A more realistic thought could be: “I’m not getting as much done as I’d like but depression often does hurt motivation. It is good I am still getting some things done despite how I feel”. As a result of this new thought Dan likely will feel less depressed and perhaps proud of himself for his perseverance.
“Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying, ‘I made a mistake’, you tell yourself, ‘I’m a jerk’, or ‘a fool’, or ‘a loser’.”
Example: Jennifer thinks “I’m such an idiot” when she accidentally sends an email to the wrong person. This thought makes her feel angry at herself and worthless.
If instead Jennifer told herself “everyone makes mistakes, it happens”, she would likely feel neutral about the experience.
“Personalizing and Blame: You blame yourself for something you weren’t entirely responsible for, or you blame other people and overlook ways that your own attitudes and behavior might contribute to a problem.”
Example: James thinks “I am being so awkward” when his conversation with another person falters. As a result, he feels bad about himself and nervous. James didn’t consider that his conversations typically flow well so it likely was not entirely his fault the conversation was faltering. It takes at least two to have a conversation, after all.
A more realistic thought could be: “Yes, the conversation is faltering, but it’s not 100% my fault”. This new thought helps James feel less awkward compared to when he unhelpfully accepted all the responsibility for the faltering conversation.
The third step to changing unrealistic depressed thoughts is telling yourself what a more realistic thought would be. Often you will find that doing so will help you feel significantly better.
Many people find this process is most helpful when they use a worksheet you can download by clicking here. Writing everything down makes it easier to identify unrealistic thoughts and what more realistic ones would be.
If you find this process helpful, keep it up. Eventually it will come to you more naturally. When done frequently enough, challenging unrealistic depressed thoughts can be a key strategy for getting rid of depression. Try to complete the worksheet at least once a day and you should see a noticeable shift in your mood.
- Bill McCadden, MSW, LCSW
Concepts and some of the text in this post were obtained from Dr. David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook. The categories of inaccurate thinking were copied directly out of this book. If you find this method of changing your depressed thoughts to be helpful, I suggest reading and completing the exercises found in The Feeling Good Handbook. In it are many strategies you can use to change both depressed and anxious thoughts. You can find the book on amazon or from other stores. It can often be found at public libraries as well.